Sentence completion questions test your ability to use your vocabulary and recognise logical consistency among the elements in a sentence. You need to know more than the dictionary definitions of the words involved. You need to know how the words fit together to make logical and stylistic sense.
Sentence completion questions actually measure one part of reading comprehension. If you can recognise how the different parts of a sentence affect one another, you should do well at choosing the answer that best completes the meaning of the sentence or provides a clear, logical statement of fact. The ability to recognise irony and humour will also stand you in good stead, as will the ability to recognise figurative language and to distinguish between formal and informal levels of speech.
Because the sentence completion questions contain many clues that help you to answer them correctly (far more clues than the antonyms provide, for example), and because analysing them helps you warm up for the reading passages later on in the test, on the paper-and-pencil test, answer them first. Then go on to tackle the analogies, the antonyms, and, finally, the time-consuming reading comprehension section.
Sentence completion questions may come from any of a number of different fields-art, literature, history, philosophy, botany, astronomy, geology, and so on. You cannot predict what subject matter the sentences on your test will involve.
What makes the hard questions hard?
Vocabulary Level: Sentences contain words like intransigence, nonplussed, harbingers. Answer choices include words like penchant, abeyance, and eclectic.
Grammatical Complexity. Sentences combine the entire range of grammatical possibilities adverbial clauses, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, gerunds, infinitives, and so on in convoluted ways. The more complex the sentence, the more difficult it is for you to spot the key words that can unlock its meaning.
Tone. Sentences reflect the writer’s attitude towards the subject matter. It is simple to comprehend material that is presented neutrally. It is far more difficult to comprehend material that is ironic, condescending, playful, sombre, or otherwise complex in tone.
Style. Ideas may be expressed in different manners ornately or sparely, poetically or prosaically, formally or informally, journalistically or academically, originally or imitatively. An author’s style depends on such details as word choice, imagery, repetition, rhythm, sentence structure and length.
Techniques that will help you
Work through the following Rules and learn techniques that will help you with vocabulary, grammatical complexity, tone, and style.
Rule 1: Before You Look at the Choices, Read the Sentence and Think of a Word That Makes Sense
Your problem is to find the word that best completes the sentence in both thought and style. Before you look at the answer choices, see if you can come up with a word that makes logical sense in the context. Then look at all five choices. If the word you thought of is one of your five choices, select that as your answer. If the word you thought of is not one of your five choices, look for a synonym of that word. Select the synonym as your answer.
This Rule is helpful because it enables you to get a sense of the sentence as a whole without being distracted by any misleading answers among the answer choices. You are free to concentrate on spotting key words or phrases in the body of the sentence and to call on your own “writer’s intuition” in arriving at a stylistically apt choice of word.
See how the process works in a typical model question
1. Because experience had convinced her that he was both self-seeking and avaricious, she rejected the likelihood that his donation had been _______.
This sentence presents a simple case of cause and effect. The key phrase here is self-seeking and avaricious. The woman has found the man to be selfish and greedy. Therefore, she refuses to believe he can do something _______. What words immediately come to mind? Selfless, generous, charitable? The missing word is, of course, altruistic. The woman expects selfishness (self-seeking) and greediness (avaricious), not altruism (magnanimity). The correct answer is Choice E. Practice of Rule 1 extensively develops your intuitive sense of just the exactly right word. However, do not rely on Rule 1 alone. On the test, always follow up Rule 1 with Rule 2.
Rule 2: Look at All the Possible Answers Before You Make Your Final Choice
Never decide on an answer before you have read all the choices. You are looking for the word that best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole. In order to be sure you have not been hasty in making your decision, substitute all the answer choices for the missing word. Do not spend a lot of time doing so, but do try them all. That way you can satisfy yourself that you have come up with the best answer.
See how this Rule helps you deal with another question.
1. The evil of class and race hatred must be eliminated while it is still in an _______ state; otherwise it may grow to dangerous proportions.
On the basis of a loose sense of this sentence’s meaning, you might be tempted to select Choice A. After all, this sentence basically tells you that you should wipe out hatred before it gets too dangerous. Clearly, if hatred is vague or amorphous, it is less formidable than if it is well defined. However, this reading of the sentence is inadequate: it fails to take into account the sentence’s key phrase.
The key phrase here is ‘grow to dangerous proportions’. The writer fears that class and race hatred may grow large enough to endanger society. He wants us to wipe out this hatred before it is fully-grown. Examine each answer choice, eliminating those answers that carry no suggestion that something lacks its full growth. Does overt suggest that something isn’t fully-grown? No, it suggests that something is obvious or evident. Does uncultivated suggest that something isn’t fully grown? No, it suggests that something is unrefined or growing without proper care or training. Does independent suggest that something isn’t fully-grown? No, it suggests that something is free and unconstrained. Only one word suggests a lack of full growth: embryonic (at a rudimentary, early stage of development). The correct answer is Choice D.
Rule 3: In Double-Blank Sentences, Go Through the Answers, Testing the First Word in Each Choice (and Eliminating Those That Don’t Fit)
In a sentence completion question with two blanks, read through the entire sentence to get a sense of it as a whole. Then insert the first word of each answer pair in the sentence’s first blank. Ask yourself whether this particular word makes sense in this blank. If the initial word of an answer pair makes no sense in the sentence, you can eliminate that answer pair.
(Note: Occasionally this Rule will not work. In some questions, for example, the first words of all five answer pairs may be near-synonyms. However, the Rule frequently pays off, as it does in the following example.)
1. Critics of the movie version of The Colour Purple _______ its saccharine, overoptimistic mood at odds with the novel’s more Purple _______ tone.
For a quick, general sense of the opening clause, break it up. What does it say? Critics……….the movie’s sugary sweet mood.
How would critics react to something sugary sweet and over-hopeful? They would disapprove. Your first missing word must be a synonym for disapprove.
Now eliminate the misfits. Choices A and C fail to meet the test: applauded and acclaimed signify approval, not disapproval. Choice B, condemned, Choice D, denounced and Choice E, decried, however, all disapprobation; they require a second look.
To decide among Choices B, D, and E, consider the second blank. The movie’s sugary, overly hopeful mood is at odds with the novel’s tone: the two moods disagree. Therefore, the novel’s tone is not hopeful or sugary sweet. It is instead on the bitter or sour side; in a word, acerbic, the correct answer is clearly Choice E.
Rule 4: Watch for Signal Words That Link One Part of the Sentence to Another
Writers use transitions to link their ideas logically. These transitions or signal words are clues that can help you figure out what the sentence actually means. Sentences often contain several signal words, combining them in complex ways.
1. Cause and Effect Signals
Look for words or phrases explicitly indicating that one thing causes another or logically determines another.
Cause and Effect signal Words
In order to
Look for words or phrases explicitly indicating that the omitted portion of the sentence supports or continues a thought developed elsewhere in the sentence. In such cases, a synonym or near-synonym for another word in the sentence may provide the correct answer.
Support Signal Words
2. Contrast Signals (Explicit)
Look for functional words or phrases (conjunctions, adverbs, etc.) that explicitly indicate a contrast between one idea and another, setting up a reversal of a thought. In such cases, an antonym or near-antonym for another word in the sentence may provide the correct answer.
Explicit Contrast Signal Words
On the contrary
On the other hand
In spite of
3. Contrast Signals (Implicit)
Look for content words whose meanings inherently indicate a contrast. These words can turn a situation on its head. They indicate that something unexpected, possibly even unwanted, has occurred.
Implicit Contrast Signal Words
Note the function of such a contrast signal word in the following question.
1. Paradoxically, the more ________ the details this artist chooses, the better able she is to depict her fantastic, otherworldly landscapes.
The artist creates imaginary landscapes that do not seem to belong to this world. We normally would expect the details comprising these landscapes to be as fantastic and supernatural as the landscapes themselves. But the truth of the matter, however, is paradoxical: it contradicts what we expect. The details she chooses are realistic, and the more realistic they are, the more fantastic the paintings become. The correct answer is Choice B.
Rule 5: Use Your Knowledge of Word Parts and Parts of Speech to figure out the meanings of Unfamiliar Words
If a word used by the author is unfamiliar, or if an answer choice is unknown to you, two approaches are helpful.
Break up the word into its component parts – prefixes, suffixes, and roots – to see whether they provide a clue to its meaning. For example, in the preceding list of Implicit Contrast Signal Words, the word incongruous contains three major word parts, in- here means not; con- means together; gru- means to move or conic. Incongruous behaviour, therefore, is behaviour that does not go together or agree with someone’s usual behaviour; it is unexpected.
Change the unfamiliar word from one part of speech to another. If the adjective embryonic is unfamiliar to you, cut off its adjective suffix -nic and recognise the familiar word embryo. If the noun precocity is unfamiliar to you cut off its noun suffix -ity and visualise it with different endings. You may think of the adjective precocious (maturing early). If the verb appropriate is unfamiliar to you, by adding a word part or two, you may come up with the common noun appropriation or the still more common noun misappropriation (as in the misappropriation of funds).
Note the application of this Rule in the following typical example.
1. This island is a colony; however, in most matters, it is_______and receives no orders from the mother country.
First, eliminate any answer choices that are obviously incorrect. If a colony receives no orders from its mother country, it is essentially self-governing. It is not necessarily methodical or systematic nor is it by definition heretical (unorthodox) or disinterested (impartial). Thus, you may rule out Choices B, C, and E.
The two answer choices remaining may be unfamiliar to you. Analyse them, using what you know of related words. Choice A, dichotomous, is related to the noun dichotomy, a division into two parts, as in the dichotomy between good and evil. Though the island colony may be separated from the mother country by distance that has nothing to do with how the colony governs itself Choice D, autonomous, comes from the prefix auto-(self) and the root nom-(law). An autonomous nation is independent.
Rule 6: Break Up Complex Sentences into Simpler Components
In analysing long, complex sentence completion items, you may find it useful to simplify the sentences by breaking them up. Rephrase dependent clauses and long participial phrases, turning them into simple sentences.
See how this Rule helps you to analyse the following sentence.
1. Museum director Hoving _______ refers to the smuggled Greek urn as the “hot pot;” not because there are doubts about its authenticity or even great reservations as to its price, but because its _______of acquisition is open to question.
What do we know?
The urn has been smuggled.
Hoving calls it a “hot pot.”
It is genuine. (There are no doubts about its authenticity.)
It did not cost too much. (There are no great reservations as to its price.)
In calling the smuggled urn a “hot pot, “ Hoving is not necessarily speaking characteristically or redundantly or cheerfully. He is speaking either informally or colloquially. (Hot here is a slang term meaning stolen or illegally obtained.) Its costliness is not being questioned. However, because the urn has been smuggled into the country, there clearly are unresolved questions about how it got here, in other words, about its manner of acquisition. The correct answer is Choice C.
Note that in sentence completion questions a choice may he complicated by an unusual word order, such as:
Placing the subject after the verb: To the complaints window strode the angry customer.
Placing the subject after an auxiliary of the verb: Only by unending search could some few Havana cigars be found.
Inverting the subject and verb to give the sense of “if”: Were defeat to befall him today’s dear friends would be tomorrow’s acquaintances, and next week’s strangers.
Placing a negative word or phrase first’ which usually requires at least part of the verb to follow: Never have I encountered so demanding a test!
In all these instances, rephrase the sentence to make it more straightforward. For example:
The angry customer strode to the complaints window.
Some few Havana cigars could be found only by unending search.
If defeat were to befall him, today’s dear friends would be tomorrow’s acquaintances, and next week’s strangers.